The April 3 edition of the Sunday Times Magazine covered a subject that is near and dear to my heart: pronouns.
I am particularly sensitive to this hot issue because I happen to be married to a pronounally-impaired person. Some minor short circuit in my wife Barbara’s brain has prevented her from grasping the finer points of pronoun use, particularly the part about first mentioning who you are talking about before replacing their name with a pronoun.
NOTICE: If you’re about to correct my use of the word “their” in the previous sentence, you’re about to discover that a) you’re wrong and, b) like me, you’re an asshole.
I’ve told Barbara repeatedly that she cannot begin a conversation with a line like, “He is such an idiot” if she has not previously told me who “he” is. Barbara believes it is sufficient if this prior reference has occurred within the past several days. I maintain, as I think most sane people would, that I cannot be expected to know who the hell she is talking about if the “he” she is referring to is somebody she mentioned in passing yesterday. This, however, does not stop Barb from being annoyed at my ignorance, and she then probably calls her sister to complain, at which point the idiot “he” will become me.
Anyway, getting back to the Sunday Times Magazine article, which did not mention Barbara or her affliction at all, it was about the need for a singular pronoun that is not gender-specific. I first addressed our language’s critical shortcoming back in 2013, in a post wherein I proclaimed my displeasure at having to constantly write “he or she” or “him or her” or “his or hers” when discussing a person of unknown gender. (“Somebody left his or her jacket here; I’ll return it to him or her when he or she comes back.”)
As I quickly discovered, the need for a gender-neutral pronoun transcends those occasions when I don’t know the person’s sex; it’s also important for those in the bigender, trigender, pangender, nongendered, agender, other-gendered, gender-fluid, and genderqueer community, which is just around the corner from Gay Street in Greenwich Village.
Just kidding! Don’t get all rainbowy on me.*
The point of the Sunday Times Magazine article is that, instead of creating a new singular gender-neutral pronoun, we, as a (barely) English-speaking society have defaulted to “they:”
The Washington Post is one of the first to have taken up the cause, welcoming the singular “they” into the paper’s stylebook late last year. And in January, the American Dialect Society voted the singular “they” its 2015 Word of the Year, noting its “emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”
Well, first, allow me to congratulate the singular “they” for winning the Word of the Year election, beating out such hopefuls as “a,” “the” and “sexting.” I’m sure it will soon appear on the cover of American Dialect Society Magazine, but not, obviously, on the swimsuit edition.
So not only is “they” now acceptable as a replacement for “he or she” when the gender is not known by the writer, its use is also okay when the subject may not be entirely sure.
But, according to the article, the LGBT community (turn right at Palo Alto) is not entirely on board with “they.”
It’s precisely the vagueness of “they” that makes it a not-so-ideal pronoun replacement. It can obscure a clear gender identification with a blurred one. Think of genderqueer people who are confident in their knowledge of their own gender identity as one that simply doesn’t fit the boxes of “he” or “she”: Calling all of them “they” can make it sound as if someone’s gender is unknowable; it’s the grammatical equivalent of a shrug.
There are two things going on here. First is the need for gender-neutrality when we’re talking about one person of unknown gender. Second, we have the desire for gender-neutrality among a certain segment of the population who wish not to be identified by gender.
So let me take those on separately. “They” sort of works in the first instance. Yes, I cringe a little at “They left their jacket here,” but it’s preferable to a paragraph full of “his or hers.”
And I agree that “they” does not work for the second problem, but not for the reasons stated above. Saying “Ken left their jacket here” is just weird, no matter what gender Ken identifies as. If Ken tells me he identifies as a woman, I will tell her that I’m fine using “she” and then ask why she hasn’t changed her name to Kendra.
But Ken has to let me know. It’s almost like he has to have a label sewn into his jacket saying “Property of Ken, born male but not identifying as either traditional binary gender so, if a pronoun is used to refer to me, please use ‘xe,’ ‘xim,’ and ‘xir.’”
In most instances, though, the person who is writing about Ken will not have that information. Which means that we’d have to start referring to everybody neutrally, which actually would solve a lot of problems if we can come up with the right word. If Ken were a basset hound, we could say that “Ken left its jacket here.” But, although I don’t know Ken well, I’m guessing they might find that offensive.
And one more thing, Ken: you’ve got an ugly jacket.
In other grammar news, a study at the University of Michigan has concluded that people who are bothered by, and who habitually correct, grammatical errors tend to be introverted, disagreeable, and neurotic.
As my wife will gladly tell you, that describes me perfectly. But even though I get a little crazy about her aforementioned pronoun problem and the fact that she cannot distinguish between “your” and “you’re,” they love me anyway.
See you soon.
*I really am kidding here, folks. And the street corner pictured is real; there actually is a Gay Street in Greenwich Village. I know because I used to live in a building on the corner depicted in the photo. It was, by the way, a very nice community.